Subdividing the Bitterroot

Can Ravalli County keep up with growth?



Since last October, land developers in the Bitterroot Valley have submitted 86 separate subdivision proposals for county government review. The proposed subdivisions range in size from two lots on two acres to 40 lots on 272 acres. If approved en masse, nearly 1,600 acres of the Bitterroot Valley will be subdivided into 702 lots and enter a hot real estate market that shows no sign of cooling off.

And those numbers don’t include the 320 new homes proposed on less than 60 acres inside Hamilton city limits, or the 170 homes on 105 acres in Stevensville.

Nor do they include Aspen Springs, what critics call a “megadevelopment”: 650 homes clustered on 400 acres east of Florence.

Aspen Springs is designed by Missoula-based Westmont Builders-Developers, which also developed Missoula’s Canyon Creek Village. Though official plans have not yet been submitted to the Ravalli County planning office for review, speculative details have already been leaked to the public. Neighbors are so alarmed at what they’ve learned that they’ve already launched a defensive attack with an informational website and weekly strategy meetings.

“Strategy is a harsh word,” says Aspen Springs opponent and neighboring landowner Steve Hall. “But in a sense we are in a battle.”

The Florence Coalition Against Aspen Springs is up against the largest subdivision ever proposed in the Bitterroot Valley, one they believe is a harbinger of the future of development in Western Montana, which some are calling the “new west coast.”

Aside from the addition of 650 homes in the neighborhood, Hall says the planning office projects that the development will result in about 350 new students at the already overcrowded Florence school. The developer’s pledge to voluntarily contribute $150 per home to the school is seen as woefully inadequate. “That would pay for the buses to get kids to school and then where are you?” Car trips to and from the development also will increase by an additional 5,200 trips a day, he says, and “It’s a terrible piece of road through a dangerous intersection.”

But still bigger issues concern Hall and other Coalition members. The first is the impact the development might have on water quality and quantity. The development is expected to consume an estimated 400,000 gallons of water a day. The developers propose building a holding tank of that size “and hope for no impact to the aquifer,” says Hall. Westmont has drilled seven wells on the property and the Coalition will ask the state Department of Environmental Quality to pump all seven continuously for 72 hours in a “drawdown test” to determine not only water quantity but, more importantly for neighboring landowners, whether and how much the drawdown affects their own wells. “They’re going to have to prove there’s water there,” says Hall.

Likewise, the Coalition is concerned about water quality. A 1992 U.S. Geological Survey study showed elevated nitrate levels in nearby Eight Mile Creek. Since the Coalition believes that study was incomplete, it wants the state to conduct additional water quality studies.

The biggest problem, though, is not Aspen Springs itself, says Hall, but lack of planning and foresight in Ravalli County, compounded by out-of-area developers whose projects throw neighborhoods into turmoil, but who have no stake in those neighborhoods themselves.

The Aspen Springs project and the clustered developments in Hamilton and Stevensville might give Bitterrooters the impression that growth is happening haphazardly, in the absence of management. In truth, county officials are so swamped by the sheer quantity of subdivision proposals they can barely see the growth curve, much less stay ahead of it.

Ravalli County Commission Chairman Greg Chilcott supports planning efforts, but he isn’t optimistic that efforts to manage growth can keep up with actual growth. The problem is a lack of money to hire staff needed to manage growth properly, he says. There are no big-business tax-revenue generators in Ravalli County, which operates primarily on property-tax collections. “It’s a very steep curve and our growth rate is very significant. Trying to plan for it is a constant challenge with our very austere budget. Without real tax revenue we keep falling farther and farther behind. We’re definitely swamped.”

Hall sympathizes, but hopes Aspen Springs will be the catalyst that will force county commissioners to get serious about planning. He wants county commissioners to stand up for Bitterrooters who are tired of seeing their home values and neighborhoods compromised by willy-nilly development, and to make the subdivision process more predictable.

Easier said than done. Growth planning has always been a political flashpoint in the Bitterroot, where property rights are pitted against property values. Chilcott sees no evidence that planning advocates and opponents are willing to compromise and work together. “Organizations have drawn a fairly firm line in the sand,” he says.

And development doesn’t appear to be leveling off. In fact, with the three clustered home developments—Aspen Springs, Stevensville’s 170 homes and Hamilton’s 320—more and bigger would seem to be the future of growth in the Bitterroot.

But despite a growing workload, and the fact that Bitterrooters themselves are working at cross-purposes, county planner Patrick O’Herren is optimistic about the potential for good planning, especially given the support of the county commission. And besides, he says, Bitterrooters have brought the dilemma on themselves.

“A lot of this is our own doing,” he says of the growth. “We’ve advertised this valley very well.”


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